Nature Can Speak to Our Students

By Kate Trnka

Talking to trees isn’t something that happened overnight for me– or maybe it was! Maybe it was a conscious decision to return to my childlike nature – remembering that everything is connected – that I am nature and we are all here to support one another. We are not in this alone. And, isn’t that important for every child to know – that they are not alone?

When I look back on my childhood, I have always had an affinity with the natural world – I remember climbing trees, catching crayfish in the creek near my childhood home, hiking in the woods, fishing at the river, collecting rocks, picking “flowers” (weeds) for my mom (they were so pretty,) laying in the tall grass and seeing all kinds of things within the clouds in the sky, listening to the bees buzzing, watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, listening to the birds, camping, picking up a hatched robins’ egg…the list goes on… Then, I grew up. Although I remember always being in touch with nature, life sure gets busy, doesn’t it? I didn’t always take the time to really notice the natural world, or spend much time there. Life got stressful and I no longer used this free and natural avenue to decompress. As a participant in a workshop, I was tasked to tune into the messages that nature has to offer us if we only take the time and are open to receiving them. After having a most wonderful experience with this assignment, I took this idea home with me and re-opened my heart to all that nature offers.

You see, I firmly believe that nature can, and does, provide us with so much peace (and wisdom) if we just allow ourselves to be still long enough to appreciate it. I’m not the only one that believes that spending time in the natural world is the answer to many of the problems society is facing. Richard Louv, in his book, “Last Child in the Woods” says our children are suffering from NDD (Nature Deficit Disorder) because they are not spending time in nature. Our children are being plagued with so many diagnoses: anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, behavior disorders, eating disorders, adjustment disorders, and more. He believes (and so do I) that if our children spent more time in the natural world – most, if not all, of these problems would disappear.

Dr. Mike Cohen, founder of Project Nature Connect, tells us that “more than 95 percent of our time on Earth is spent indoors, boxed in and away from nature’s perfections. We are unbalanced because the intelligence of our inherent natural psyche is stressed and abandoned like a fish out of water. Nature’s authentic dance is homeless in people’s mind and spirit. We have lost contact with its unifying energies.”

I had begun living in this “boxed in” world and noticed that I was feeling out of balance. I felt I couldn’t take any more. There were too many decisions to be made, too many pressures, too many obligations, not enough time, not enough money, and too many problems vying for my attention. I felt I didn’t have anyone to talk to about all of this. I was supposed to be strong and have it all together, right?! It was at this time that I remembered the peace, safety and acceptance I had always found in nature. I decided to head out to the park near my home to try to decompress.

Once I was out in the natural world, my problems seemed so small. They dissipated so quickly. Sitting down by the river – hearing the geese fly overhead, watching the magnificent heron fishing, seeing the carp jump up over the surface of the water - it was not long before I found peace; not only with the problems that faced me, but peace within me – all of me - mind, body and spirit.

One evening, when the river area was bustling with people, I went to the woods instead and noticed a particular tree. I walked over to it, leaned against it and began to “tell” it why I was there. I “told” the tree what was going on in my life and, in telling my story; I felt my stress gradually disappearing. The more I spoke, the better I felt.

Which brings me to my point… our students feel many similar pressures – too much to do, not enough time, stressful family situations, grades, problems with friends, etc. How wonderful that there is a trusting “friend” waiting for them, ready to listen! That trusted friend could be a tree, the river, the sky, an insect, their pet – anything in the natural world. The beautiful thing about the natural world is that there is no judgment. Nature just listens – and often responds. Not necessarily with words (however, messages can come through), but with sounds, with colors, with senses - with experiences.

Having had several of these experiences myself, and tracking them in my journal, I decided that I wanted to share some of my experiences (and the messages I received) with others. I felt that some of the messages were too good not to be shared. That’s why I wrote my first book, If These Trees Could Talk, Park 1: Stories from the Trees of Sunset Park. The book is a series of short stories based on my experiences in the woods near my home.

If These Trees Could Talk includes a most wonderful experience I had one day with my students when our classroom was being used for other purposes. Because the playground was also occupied (it was the older students’ recess time,) we had to find another place to hold classes that day. I share this with you, not only because it’s a great story, but also to emphasize the importance of children spending time in nature. There are so many gifts to be received when we allow ourselves to “just be” and to watch and listen and experience what is before us in any given moment.

Here’s the prologue to my book. It describes that day in detail:

One gorgeous late fall day, instead of having class indoors, I decided to take my first grade classes out for a walk. There was a set of woods adjacent to the school where I taught and they were calling me to come see them. So, when the children came to the gym that day I told them that we were going to walk over to some friends' house.

Well, I admitted it wasn't exactly a house as far as houses go, but we would definitely be visitors and as such, should be respectful on our visit. So we got together in small groups, attached ourselves to small ropes and walked onward. When we got to the edge of the woods, I told the children that we were going in there - as I pointed to the woods.

They were all excited - they started walking toward the woods. But, before they got too far, I asked them if they had asked permission to enter. They said they hadn't. The rest of the story goes something like this:

"Well, if you were going over to someone's house, would you just go in, or would you knock on the door or ring the door bell?" "We'd knock first," everyone chimed in. So I explained, "We can't exactly knock on a door, but there is a door of sorts into these woods. I think we should ask the trees if it’s okay to come in." The kids all started asking, "Can we come in?" "Can we come in?" I stopped them and suggested that they stop being verbal and instead, ask in their minds and hearts that same question - silently. That's how much of nature communicates... in silence.

So the kids paused and we all stood silent for a moment in time. Then I asked, "Did anyone get an answer?" And every single child either said, "Yes." Or, "It's okay to go in." Or, "They said it was okay." So, into the woods we traveled. During the first trip into the woods that day (with my first class,) I merely told the children simple things, or asked simple questions like, "Did you know that the bigger the tree is, the older it is?" "Be quiet and we might see some creatures in the woods." I was so amused at the excitement when a student would catch a glimpse of a squirrel. But little did we know what special gift we were about to receive - the sight of a red-tailed hawk in a tree bordering the back edge of the woods. I stood still and turned to the students with my finger placed in front of my pursed lips … and pointed to the tree where the hawk stood and whispered, "Look in the tree. There's a hawk." It seems only the first couple of groups were able to catch a glimpse of him before he flew into a nearby tree still within my view. He seemed to be as curious about as we were of him. He stayed there looking at us, and us looking at him, until we decided to move on.

We walked on - pointing at things and enjoying the beautiful day. Once we got to the other side of the woods (before it was time to turn around and head back) I asked the kids if they had ever hugged a tree. No one had. They looked at me kind of funny when I said, "Trees love hugs ... just like people do. I hug trees all the time." I told them, that if they wanted to, I'd give them two minutes to try and hug 6 trees and be back here to meet up with the group. The kids loved it. I could see it in their faces. Such delight! It was time to return to school. We had gotten in a terrific class and even had some light exercise in the process. It felt like light exercise to me, but I guess the walk was plenty for these young ones!

The next class started out similarly although we didn't have the good fortune to see the hawk. However, this time when we got to the edge of the woods, and I started telling them about hugging trees, I decided to take it a bit further. I told the students that I thank the trees when I give them a hug. I decided to show them what I did. When I got to the tree, I hugged it said something like this, "Thank you so much for your beauty, for the shade you provide to people and animals. Thank you for your life and helping us to breathe better. Thanks for the pretty leaves and giving protection to all of the animals." Then, I asked the kids if they wanted to hug the trees, and if they wanted to, they could say something to the trees, too. All of them did. I gave them 2 minutes to hug and talk to at least three trees. When they returned back to the group circle, I asked them if they would like to share what they had said to the trees. I got many responses: "I told my tree, 'Thank you'." "I love you." "Thank you for your shade."

The next two classes went something like the first two, building upon the experience of the first two classes, until during the last class once we got to our circle at the other side of the woods, it went something like this ... I talked about how I hugged the trees and thanked them for their life. Then, I asked the students if they wanted to hug and talk to the trees. "Yeah!!" I told them I'd give them two minutes to "hang out" with a tree and then to meet back here.

When we all gathered back together, I asked, "Who said something to their tree?" Everyone raised their hand. "What did you say?" I had similar responses as in previous classes: "I love you." "Thanks." Then I asked, "Did anyone's tree talk back to you?" At first, my question was met with silence. Then, I heard a couple of "NOooooo!" followed by mocking laughter. But one brave little girl said, "Mine did!" So, I asked her, "What did it say?" She said it had said, "I love you, too."

All of a sudden, everyone was brave enough to share their conversational experience with their tree. We went around the circle with those who wanted to share. Then I started back at the beginning and asked the first little girl, "Could you tell what kind of tree it was? I mean, was it a mama tree, or a papa tree, or a grandma tree, or a grandpa tree, or a little kid tree?" She said, "It was a woman tree." We went around the circle again to ask if the kids could tell me the gender and age of the tree. I thought that perhaps the boys would say they had spoken with a boy tree and the girls with a girl tree. But, it did not turn out that way at all. There were trees of both genders and of all ages!

The kids were excited to share and I was so amazed by how they were so naturally tuned into the trees' spirits. On the way out of the woods, this last time, one little girl was skipping through the woods, waving and saying out loud, "Hi grandpa! Hi sister! Hi friend!" and on and on she went! And each time we left the woods, we thanked our hosts ... and we left the door... open! I wanted to share this story with you, because it made me so very aware of how far we can get from opening our hearts to all that is.

Most adults would scoff at talking with trees, but it felt so very natural to these little folks. I believe that if we approached the world with a child's heart we would have a better understanding of how we should communicate, how we should treat things, and how we should love. I believe that as adults we have a lot to turn from nature, from each other and from our kids.

Responses to my book have been very positive, the most popular being, “After I finished your book, I went out and hugged a tree!” I also have heard over and over again, “I look at trees so differently now.”
“It’s one of those books that you can read over and over again.”

Our children need nature because… Nature doesn’t judge. Nature is free. Nature speaks to us in our times of need. Nature is a most powerful teacher!

© 2014 *Reprinted with permission

Kate Trnka is a public school teacher in Appleton, WI and author of “If These Trees Could Talk, Park 1: Stories from The Trees of Sunset Park.” To purchase a copy of Kate’s book, go to http://www.sacredearthwellness.net/If-These-Trees-Could-Talk.html  She is currently working on her second book in the series, “If These Trees Could Talk, Park 2: Stories from The Trees of High Cliff State Park.” Kate loves to teach, read, write, camp, and, of course take walks in the woods.